Consult-Liaison Education

On the Emotion of Anger.

I have no idea if the vicissitudes of life at this moment are more challenging than times past. Perhaps the intensity and quality of suffering in humanity remains unchanged, but now, due to technology and the increased breadth of our situational awareness, we are simply more aware of the degree and scale of human suffering. Our ancestors had no way of knowing as much as we do now.

(Humans, though, have suffered individual and local tragedies for as long as we have existed. Sometimes—often?—these individual tragedies induce greater suffering than we can ever imagine. Consider the parent whose spouse and child have both died. Surely deaths from disease and war affect this person, too, but how do those compare to the indescribable grief and heartbreak from the loss of kin? I don’t know. Someone out there does know. For them, I wish them peace, even if this wish is functionally just a spindly raft in a deep sea of sorrow.)

The range of human emotions is vast. In American culture, certain emotions are more acceptable than others. (This is likely true across all cultures.) And perhaps I should be more precise here: American culture tolerates the expression of certain emotions more than others. For example, American culture is intolerant of men weeping for any reason. We have been conditioned to consider that men who are crying—even for the most valid of reasons—are weak, incompetent, and incapable.

These social norms influence the individual and shape our behavior. If society cannot tolerate my tears, then I will do what I can to avoid crying. This can involve psychological acrobatics to avoid feeling the emotion that induces crying.

The problem is that emotions serve a function. Emotions give us information about the people we are around, the situations we are in, and what matters to us. They help us choose and express our behaviors, even if some of these choices don’t happen entirely consciously.

There’s a concept called “secondary emotions”, which are emotions we feel (and then express) as a result of other emotions. Some examples will help clarify this. (The emotion of anger—and we see so much anger these days—is what prompted this post, so I will use anger in these examples.)

American culture often discourages women from expressing anger. Women who express anger are often called “bitches”, even if their anger is justified. The (antiquated?) phrase “resting bitch face” illustrates this: That woman isn’t really an angry “bitch”, that’s just her face. If a woman feels and expresses the primary emotion of anger, she may then quickly feel and express the secondary emotion of guilt: “I shouldn’t feel anger; it makes me seem like I’m not a nice person. But I want to be a nice person. But maybe I’m not a nice person because nice people don’t get angry like this. So maybe I’m a terrible person. Oh no.” Society is more accepting of a woman’s deferential behavior that may follow. (Those familiar with CBT will recognize black-and-white thinking happening here.)

Similarly, American culture discourages men from expressing sadness. Our culture instead tolerates men expressing anger. Thus, men may actually feel a primary emotion of sadness, but the secondary emotion is anger. Maybe they express anger to counteract their perceived “weakness” for feeling sadness. Maybe they express anger because they know, whether consciously or not, that they are less likely to get want (including respect) if they express sadness.

Anger is also an activating emotion. Recall that emotions can and do drive behavior. When feeling sad, people are generally more likely to withdraw and isolate. Some people who feel sad will reach out to others for support, but sadness usually pulls people inward. When feeling angry, people are generally more likely to do something and take initiative. Feeling angry makes people feel more powerful.

Consider someone stomping down a hallway and throwing open a door while exiting. This behavior may seem like a withdrawal from people, but they busted out the door. Such a behavior requires initiative and energy, and often benefits from an audience. We turn our heads when we see someone storm out of a building while muttering profanity; we don’t when someone slips out the back door in tears.

There is little utility in denying our emotions. You feel what you feel. Sometimes, though, we resist feeling the primary, foundational emotion, maybe one that is too tender for us to acknowledge. It forces questions to the surface that we may not want to answer: What does it mean if I am unwilling or unable to feel sad? What would I discover if I sat with my anger and felt its sharp, jagged edges? What would I learn about myself if I explored this contempt? What things would I have to change about myself if I understood that there is something soft and vulnerable under this rage?